Cast aside the memories of ninth grade English class. The upcoming production of “The Crucible” features something a little different.
The Kenai Performers acting troupe is using the main rehearsal studio of their building on Kalifornsky Beach Road to bring the Arthur Miller play to life in a unique setting.
The play will be performed in an arena arrangement — also known as a theater-in-the-round — with audience members surrounding the center stage on all sides. The area will accommodate only 60 audience members at a time, making each performance an intimate experience.
“This is our stage,” said “Crucible” director Rebecca Gilman. “Every single member of the audience gets a different vantage point.”
The show brings to life Miller’s classic 1953 American play about the 1692 Salem witch trials, which sent a Puritan community in New England into a monthslong tailspin of lies, rumors and chaos.
Acting in such close proximity to the crowd should allow for great drama and intense emotion, cast member AnnMarie Rudstrom, who plays Elizabeth Proctor, said.
“You have to be really vulnerable because people are right there,” Rudstrom said. “They can see every emotion, subtle or not subtle.”
Jamie Nelson is one of the most experienced actors on set with over a dozen years with Kenai Performers. Since most people envision performances on a traditional “proscenium” stage — with the entire crowd always facing one side of the actors — the experience of having 360 degrees of audience around the cast will give a greater life to the roles, Nelson said.
“They picture it being in a large auditorium,” Nelson said. “That was Rebecca’s vision, having it in a smaller setting, more intimidate, and being in the round with audience on all sides of us. It makes us be extremely invested in what we’re doing, because you are so close with people.
“I think a tendency for some actors when they’re not directly speaking is to hide in the background. That’s what I love about the pressure of acting in the round, there’s no background to hide in. You’re there all the time.”
Gilman is making her directorial debut after producing a number of plays on the peninsula. She said there aren’t many changes being made to the script, which means it still packs the dramatic twists and turns.
“It’s a mix of traditional and new ways to think about it,” Gilman said. “It’s drama with a capital ‘D’.”
Gilman said the draw of “The Crucible” in the modern era is a story line that mirrors modern society, even though the scenes are set in a time more than 300 years ago.
“It still has a lot of themes that resonate today,” Gilman said. “I was giving the actors notes … It’s like on social media when someone shares one incendiary thing, and then everyone is jumping on and no one is taking a moment to think about it logically or sensibly and it goes from this spark to a raging fire.”
Miller wrote the play as an allegory for the anti-Communist fervor that swept through the nation during the 1940s and ’50s. Later brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was tasked with investigating supposed subversive activities among citizens, Miller refused to name names, drawing parallels between those events and the events in his play.
Nelson plays the Reverend John Hale, a character devoted to his religion. Nelson said the themes of fear and paranoia that emanated from the heart of the witchcraft trials still strike a chord in modern times.
“It seems like it shouldn’t be relevant anymore,” Nelson said. “And it definitely is.”
Despite their years of experience, Nelson and most of the cast are performing “The Crucible” for the first time.
“I was excited because, one, it’s a classic piece of American theater, and there’s a reason it’s a classic. The roles are all so good, and the writing is so strong,” said veteran stage actor Ian McEwan.
Gilman said cast members were chosen for the strengths and personalities they bring to their roles. She praised the 20-member group for keeping a delicate balance between raw emotion and easygoing lightheartedness.
“Everyone brings such a sense of exploration for the characters,” she said. “It’s been one of the best rehearsal experiences I’ve had, because every one of the cast has been really raw and vulnerable. But then they also have very good senses of humor.”
Mark Burton has taken on the role of John Proctor. His wife, Elizabeth, is first to become accused of witchcraft in the play. Rudstrom said she embraced the role of Elizabeth from the very beginning.
“(Elizabeth Proctor is) an interesting character because she has to live under a set of expectations from the time of how women are supposed to act,” Rudstrom said. “But she’s intelligent and strong and trying to persuade and affect what’s going on around her through her husband.”
Although “The Crucible” is her first production with Kenai Performers, Rudstrom is a four-year veteran with the Triumvirate Theatre and has about a dozen plays under her belt.
Rudstrom, who said she’s not much of a singer and therefore not a strong candidate for other shows like the recently produced musical “Willy Wonka,” said she was bursting with excitement when it was announced “The Crucible” would be the next play.
“I love it. I got so excited about it,” Rudstrom said. “From the time we were cast to our first rehearsal, it was about two months. That was just torture. I was ready to go, I couldn’t wait for it to get started.”
McEwen brings to life the character of Deputy Governor John Danforth, the lead judge in the trials. McEwen said he takes a certain measure of glee in representing an “overpowering” figure.
“For me, it’s about not turning the character into a one-trick pony,” McEwen said. “With Judge Danforth, it is very easy, because he is a bit of a boogeyman to an extent. He represents the power that is condemning people to death, so it’s easy to play him as incredibly stern and always overpowering everyone in the room.
“Finding the humanity in that is what makes him scary.”
Channeling his years of experience, McEwen memorizes countless lines with a combination of old-fashioned flash cards and new technology, using a mobile app called “Line Learner.”
“Since coming to Kenai Performers, this is the wordiest part I’ve played,” McEwen said. “But it’s also been very rewarding when it feels like I’m getting it.”
Other major characters include Reverend Samuel Parris (played by Paul Morin), Ann Putnam (Nikki Stein), Thomas Putnam (David Sorenson), Abigail Williams (Britney Storms), Francis Nurse (Allen Auxier), Susanna Walcott (Kylie Cramer), Judge Hathorne (Paul Stevenson) and the servant Tituba (Hannah Warren). Gilman also praised the work of costume designer Chris Cook for the handmade designs.
The show runs Thursday-Saturday, May 9, 10 and 11, with following weekend performances of May 16, 17 and 18. All shows start 7 p.m. in the Kenai Performers building near Poppy Lane and Kalifornsky Beach Road. Admission is $15.